Movie Reviews: Phantom Thread (2017)

Well, it’s finally over.  With the Oscars days out, I have finally gotten to the last of the nominees for Best Picture.  There’s still a number of nominees in other categories I’ll try to get to beforehand, but the most important category is done with and finishes with the one I had the least interest in.

Phantom Thread represents director Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth work and while each one of them has been acclaimed in their own right, I’ve found most of them somewhat disappointing.  I certainly don’t feel the passion for his work that others have with one exception.  There Will Be Blood still represents his best work to date and in no small part as a result of a fantastic Oscar winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis.  Phantom Thread reunites them for what is allegedly Day-Lewis’s last film.  So why am I not excited to see the two of them reunite and to witness what may be the last performance from a hugely talented actor?

Well for one, a lot of this harkened back to Anderson’s last film plus one, the similarly period set The Master, his weakest film and an all-around mess.  I didn’t hate the film the way some do, and I’d even argue it was worth watching despite its ungainly length and lack of interest in any sense of a story if only for how weird it is and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance.  Something about it also screamed “acting showcase” which anyone reading these reviews can see is one of my chief complaints about these types of prestige films.  I don’t want to say that my fears were unwarranted as the film maintains the understatement of The Master and a lesser if still present weirdness from that film, but it sure is better than I expected it to be.

The film is at its heart a three-hander centered around Day-Lewis’s acclaimed dressmaking lead.  He plays the role as aloof yet petulant child, one with an uncomfortable closeness to his dead mother and his sister, played by Lesley Manville who easily steals the movie from him.  Hers is essentially the role of the mother, devoting her life to his every need and quietly prodding him back into line.  She receives competition for that motherly role (which yes, the film is definitely playing up the creepiness of it) in the form of a new love interest played by Vicky Krieps.

A love interest may be pushing it slightly as the film kind of skips over any reason she would be interested in him.  There’s no real motivation to why she sticks around and fights so hard to be with him when he’s so awful to her, treating her like a prop from the outset.  There’s a line about how his dresses make her feel perfect, and the film proceeds as if this all makes him desirable to everyone, but he comes off as off putting and gross to me.  It cuts off any investment at the knees and while I could chalk it up to me finding the dresses (and dresses as a whole if I’m being honest about my ability to judge such matters) unimpressive.  We watch her become more and more awful in her attempts to make the “confirmed bachelor” and rarely even remotely affectiontionate man love her and try to become his surrogate mother.

Probably the biggest surprise was the humor scattered throughout, in particular the wonderfully done breakfast scenes.  It’s a quiet, British style of humor that may not elicit more than polite chuckles, but it’s enough to keep the film from disappearing up its own ass.  The humor largely stems from Manville, the one character who seems to truly know her brother, and from some the shot choices of Anderson who acted essentially as his own cinematographer.  The film looks fantastic beyond any of the dresses, even as we get shot after shot of faces of blank looking faces.  This will undoubtedly, aside from the grossness of the relationships in the film, be the most off-putting to many viewers, but I’ll give Anderson credit for making it work far better than the British period pieces it clearly aspires to be.  It may be more Merchant Ivory than the James Ivory film released this year.

If we are judging this based on the rest of its competition this year, it’s certainly towards the bottom, but it’s a fine film on its own that is compellingly plotted even if it stumbles a bit in setting up why we should care.  It exceeds expectations, if only because mine were so low, and isn’t the dry, dull affair promised, but it’s not anything that sticks with you.  It’s already defined by its status as Day-Lewis’ final film and while I really wanted to define it as something else, that’s about as much of a legacy as it probably deserves.  It’s no meta commentary on his imminent retirement, but it may have some on his legacy of getting way too into his roles at the expense of everything else.  If so, that would make it the second film of the year (after Mother!) which seems to act as a warning to its lead actor to get out while they still can.